October 18, 2016
What comes to mind when you imagine the call of P-22, L.A.'s famous urban mountain lion (Puma concolor)? Do you imagine a roar or violent hiss? If so, you are not alone because that is what people most often see and hear in the movies.
Photo by Miguel Ordeñana
However, a recent video of P-22 vocalizing (first ever!) paints a different picture. The video supports recent cutting edge research suggesting that puma communication is more complex than we once thought. As we prepare to celebrate our beloved Griffith Park denizen on P-22 Day, the rare footage reminds us how much we still have to learn about mountain lions, including L.A.’s most famous mountain lion.
First and only footage of P-22 making a vocalization. (Turn your volume up or else you'll miss it!)
Whenever a mountain lion is featured in a movie, the special effects crew usually use the roar of a big cat (animals in the Panthera genus--i.e. lions, tigers, jaguars, and panthers) or they use the call of an agitated mountain lion, which isn’t surprising, because its main objective is to entertain rather than accurately portray puma behavior. Using the roar of a big cat is inaccurate because only big cats, with their specialized larynx and flexible hyoid bone, can roar but can’t purr. [Exception: Snow leopards (Panthera uncia) are big cats that can’t roar but can purr]. All other cats, including mountain lions, purr but can’t roar. The larynx of a small cat is ossified (hardened) and has special folds that allow it to produce the purring sound when it is inhaling and exhaling. Although mountain lions can make agitated calls, they more frequently use other methods of communication. In fact, the most common mountain lion communications don’t involve sound at all!
**Fun fact: Cheetahs and mountain lions belong to the puma lineage and are not closely related to other large cats but instead are considered oversized small cats. **
Mountain lions, like many other cats rely on stealth for survival. Remaining out of sight and out of mind is important not only to hide from potential threats like competitors, but also because mountain lions--- like most cats, including your pampered pet cat---are ambush predators. Instead of chasing down prey from long distances, ambush predators are expert stalkers and conserve their energy and minimize injury risk by waiting for the victim to get close enough to improve the probability of a successful kill. Mountain lions are equipped with night vision as well as retractable claws that are concealed in padded paws. Additionally they are instructed by their experienced mothers on how to sneak up on prey and roam around unnoticed in the cover of darkness, while remaining still during the day.
Mountain lions are generally difficult to study because they are not only nocturnal but also occur at low densities due to their being solitary and territorial. Mountain lions are especially territorial in the fragmented landscape of Los Angeles because there is very little suitable habitat to go around, so direct communication can be very risky. Indirect communications between pumas come in the form of olfactory and visual cues such as urine or fecal deposits, scratch marks on trees, or a combination (Allen et al. 2015). Adult males, especially dominant males usually delineate territory boundaries, display dominance, or express sexual status using scrapes. Scrapes are produced primarily by males when the puma digs into the ground with its back feet (only), just like P-22 in the video below.
This is the only footage of P-22 digging a scrape to mark his territory.
Prior to the invention of camera traps, scientists were only able to study puma communication based on indirect cues, knowing that they regularly miss a totally different form of communication, vocalization. Even expert trackers almost never observe the cats vocalizations, limiting puma vocal communication research to captive pumas.
Fortunately, relatively recent advancements in camera trap technology such as high definition (HD) camera trap video has allowed biologists to study mountain lion communication in the wild, including vocal communication. Max Allen and UC Santa Cruz researchers executed a new study (Allen et al., In Press) using camera trap video technology to record the different types and functions of mountain lion vocalization. Allen and his colleagues identified five calls that fell under two categories: “attention attracting” and “contact and alarm calls.” “Attention attracting” calls are primarily used by females to let to males know they are ready to mate or by kittens calling to receive food from their mothers.
Kittens nursing and calling to receive more food in Northern California. Video Credit: Max Allen
“Contact and alarm calls,” are typically used to communicate with nearby mountain lions. Similar to male-dominated scrapes, males and females differentiate in the vocalizations they primarily use. For instance females predominantly caterwaul, which alert males in the area that they are available to mate.
Female caterwauling to attract a male in Northern California. Video Credit: Max Allen
But if vocalizations are motivated by territoriality and mating, why would P-22, an isolated mountain lion occupying the smallest and most urban territory ever recorded for a mountain lion, make a vocalization?
The first clue to the mystery is his long track record of exhibiting natural behavior identical to that of his more rural counterparts. He has actively avoided people and pets and seems to shy away from heavily trafficked areas. He also has been documented exhibiting territorial behavior such as boundary patrol of his territory and scent marking. The type of call he has been recorded using mostly resembles a chirp/whistle, which is a short, high-pitched call that is categorized as a contact call. The high pitch allows the sound to travel well through woodland habitat. Any interpretation of his behavior is, however, somewhat subjective. Allen and his colleagues feel they are only scratching the surface of puma communication research and that there are many more than five vocalizations that they have identified.
P-22’s regular territorial and natural behavior suggests that he hasn’t given up hope that a female will someday enter his territory and/or he hasn’t put his guard down in case another male encroaches on his turf. What it tells me is that his retention of natural puma behavior such as patience as an ambush predator, territoriality, and lack of habituation to humans may be keys for survival in an isolated and urban environment. The fact that P-22 hasn’t given up on encountering another puma someday means he hasn’t given up on connectivity. Perhaps Angelenos and conservationists can use this as motivation to tackle the formidable barriers to improving habitat connectivity, thus ensuring a future for L.A. area mountain lions.
Allen, M., Y. Wang, and C. Wilmers. In Press. Exploring the adaptive significance of five types of puma (Puma concolor) vocalizations. Canadian Field-Naturalist.
Allen, M.L., H.U. Wittmer, P. Houghtaling, J. Smith, L.M. Elbroch, and C.C. Wilmers. 2015. The role of scent marking in mate selection by female pumas (Puma concolor). PLoS One 10: e0139087.
Elbroch, M. and Rinehart, K. 2011. Peterson Reference Guides to Behavior of North American Mammals. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, New York, New York. pp. 72.
Hunter, L., and Barrett, P. 2015. Wild cats of the world. Bloomsbury Natural History, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. London; New York. pp. 9.
March 22, 2016
As I write this in mid March, Southern California is still in the grips of a historic draught. By the end of February, typically the rainiest month in Los Angeles, the city was nearly its hottest and driest on record and during what was predicted as a Godzilla El Niño winter. In contrast to our paltry 0.78 inches of rain this February, El Niño of February 1998 brought 13.68 inches of rain to Southern California!
A rare and native Los Angeles snail, Helminthoglpyta tudiculata, found by Museum citizen scientists.
How does the rain, or lack of it, influence our region’s snails and slugs? NHMLA’s El Niño #SnailBlitz was created to record this fauna during our predicted rainy winter, and has logged over 530 observations of snails and slugs since January 16th (with a wrap up date of April 14th). Given that it hasn’t been unusually rainy (yet), we haven’t documented vast numbers of snails and slugs on the wet sidewalks of our urban environments. However, one fascinating category of terrestrial gastropods (= land snails and slugs) that we have documented are those endemic to Southern California. That is, the snails and slugs that evolved here, live nowhere else, and are adapted to our Mediterranean and typically dry climate.
The first encounter with a Southern California native snail, by many El Niño #SnailBlitz contributors, was at the project’s kickoff event at Eaton Canyon Nature Center in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains.
Empty Southern California shoulderband snail shells, found during the #SnailBlitz kickoff event at Eaton Canyon Nature Center.
The Southern California shoulderband snail, Helminthoglypta tudiculata, was the star of this survey and although this species is at high to moderate risk of extinction, it was discovered in abundance. These snails are typically not found in your garden or on wet sidewalks. They usually live among decaying vegetation that they also eat. The cinnamon-brown shell of the Southern California shoulderband has exactly that, a characteristic band, usually darker than the rest of the shell running along its “shoulder” or outer shell whorl. Their discovery, and in high enough numbers to indicate a healthy population, was exciting news for both SLIME scientists and the public.
Native slug, Hesperarion hemphilli, found during an El Niño #SnailBlitz event at Griffith Park.
The publicity from the Eaton Canyon snail survey brought out 80 intrepid snail surveyors to another Museum event in Griffith Park. Though the sightings were few, the taxa found were natives too! One in particular, a slug called Hesperarion hemphilli is a Los Angeles native that was found widely distributed throughout wooded canyons of Los Angeles and Orange counties in the 1940s. Surprisingly few records have been made of it since then, and while this slug is known generally from Santa Barbara, Orange, and Los Angeles counties, the Griffith Park survey uncovered the first record of this species in the Santa Monica Mountains and only the second observation of this species on iNaturalist! Angelenos have lived near this slug for over 75 years though most have never seen it. In fact, it is so uncommon and underappreciated, that it doesn’t even have a common name!
Snail scientist Jann Vendetti with junior snail surveyors at Griffith Park in prime snail and slug habitat.
So, keep your observations coming, rain or shine. Our native snail and slug species are an understudied group and your observations are vital to understanding our local molluscan biodiversity. Contribute snail and slug observations to SLIME via photos to firstname.lastname@example.org, post on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter tagged with #SnailBlitz, or upload directly to the El Nino #SnailBlitz project on iNaturalist.
November 26, 2013
A few days ago, Miguel Ordeñana, NHMer and local biologist working on the Griffith Park Connectivity Study, captured images of the elusive gray fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus. Fortunately, I'm able to speak fox (growing up on a farm in England gives you certain skills), and have, through the magic of Photoshop, been able to translate his "Ring-ding-ding-ding-dingeringeding's" and "Fraka-kaka-kaka-kaka-kow's" into English.
*If you have no idea what the heck I'm talking about, you may want to check out Ylvis' sensational internet hit, "What Does the Fox Say?" Sure the fox they are talking about is most likely the red fox, Vulpes vulpes, but hey, I think you'll get the idea!
This is what the gray fox says:
All kidding aside, this is great news. According to Miguel, it is only the third time he's captured images of gray foxes in L.A., after almost two and half years of camera trapping! Why is this?
Mostly, it's because there just aren't many living in urban Los Angeles. They've been documented in the Baldwin Hills, on a golf course in South Los Angeles (not too far from the Museum), and in both Elysian and Griffith parks. Miguel, and other scientists studying urban carnivores, note that they "seem to be finding pockets of habitat that have enough resources, tree cover, and relatively low densities of coyotes." Even though gray foxes are very adaptable due to their small size and omnivorous diet, the larger, more social and aggressive coyote seems to have won out in the local wild dog war.
But, they're out there as Miguel's camera traps can attest, they're just pretty secretive. Not only are they mostly nocturnal, they also take to hiding while at rest. This can be in their underground den, in your backyard brush pile, or even up a tree! Gray foxes are one of the few Canids that can climb trees! By rotating their forearms, they can hug the trunk of a tree and propel themselves up the trunk with their hind legs. They've been known to scale heights of up to 60 feet, and sometimes they even build dens in the leafy reaches. How's that for vertical living in Los Angeles?
Learn more about our local gray foxes at Urban Carnivores.
August 15, 2013
Check out this never before seen image of our now famous Griffith Park mountain lion, Puma concolor, referred to by scientists as P-22.
P-22 (aka Hollywood) caught on camera by L.A. City Park Ranger Adam Dedeaux
Here's what Miguel Ordeñana, a field biologist and colleague of mine here at the Museum has to say about P-22:
"For those of you who don’t know, there is a mountain lion living in Griffith Park. You may have seen some of his pictures on the Nature Lab [our latest Museum exhibit] screen. My research team (Griffith Park Connectivity Study) first discovered him with one of our camera traps about a year and a half ago. This was the first photographic evidence of a mountain lion in Griffith Park. He was captured, collared, released, and named (P-22/Puma 22) soon after by National Park Service biologists. He is now the most urban mountain lion known to exist and an awesome ambassador for Griffith Park and urban wildlife conservation.
Two years ago (when P-22 was two years old), I gave one of my first talks about the Griffith Park Connectivity Study. At the time, documenting a mountain lion in Griffith Park seemed out of the question because we thought the park was too isolated from larger open spaces that bordered the park. An L.A. City park ranger was interested in camera trapping and asked me how to increase his chances of capturing a bobcat (the most elusive Griffith Park predator at the time) on camera. I gave him a few tips on how to increase his chances of capturing bobcats. He eventually purchased his own camera trap and 2 years later he captured one of the best videos of P-22 that I have ever seen."
Wow thanks Miguel! Last Friday I had the pleasure of being on a panel for Zocolo Public Square titled, Does L.A. Appreciate Its Wild Animals? Our moderator Kathryn Bowers, author of the book Zoobiquity: The Astonishing Connection Between Human and Animal Health, asked the panelists and the audience, "what should be the official animal of Los Angeles?" As an entomophile I went straight for harvester ants, since they're social, they work together, they create their own cities, and they can protect themselves with an impressive sting! However, I was in the minority, many of the audience voted for P-22. One gentleman even stood up and advocated for a new name. I mean P-22 isn't very catchy or charismatic, right?
A number of names were suggested, including Hollywood and Jimmy (a reference to the James Dean statue in Griffith Park). Although I am a fan of Rebel Without a Cause, I think this lion has a cause. I mean obviously he is trying to live his life like all the rest of us are – trying to find food, water, shelter, and at some point a mate. But to me it is more than that, against the odds (and the traffic on the 405 and 101 freeways) he has chosen L.A.'s largest city park as his home. Just like many of us in Los Angeles this lion is not a local, he is from wilder and more open country, but has chosen to live in the city now. So why not have this lion help us represent a new Los Angeles? A Los Angeles that embraces the wildlife from its urban core all the way out to its wild edges, and maybe even upto that big old sign that reads Hollywood! So here's to you Hollywood the Mountain Lion, represent our city and let the world know we've got more than just the movies here. Heck we've got awesome nature too!
Check out the video here!
April 18, 2013
On Monday night, I found a glowworm while I was up in Griffith Park! That's right people, glowworms really do exist, and they're right here in our city.
No it wasn't a discarded 80s toy, like these (though I might have been equally excited if it was):
Photo taken by Astronit
It was like this:
Check out those sexy pectinate antennae!
This beauty of a specimen is a male Western Banded Glowworm, Zarhipis integripennis. I know it's a male because it doesn't glow and it isn't wormy. That's right, only the grubs and adult females (which resemble the grubs) can glow. I find it intensely odd and fascinating that these insects have evolved, such that the adult females look and behave similarly to the immature forms. Imagine what our lives would be like if humans did that! Okay, maybe not.
Want more information about this awesome family of beetles? Check out the University of Florida's page about them.